Dear Parks Canada, There's Got To Be a Better Way

Booking a campsite shouldn't take longer and be more challenging than hiking hours into a remote backcountry campground

Backpacking the Skoki Loop in summer 2020.

Like many Albertans, I (Annalise) spent Friday trying to secure reservations at a couple backcountry campgrounds in Banff and Kootenay National Parks. Like it has been the past several years, it was an infuriating process.

Bookings opened at 8 a.m. MST and, if the social media complaints are any indication, I certainly wasn’t the only one quickly hit by technical glitches.

Despite staggering reservation dates across the country this year to reduce website slowdowns, users were greeted with lengthy queues to the tune of tens of thousands. Honestly, that part didn’t bother me. It’s understandable.

Amid another pandemic summer and potential travel restrictions, more Canadians than ever before are exploring their own backyard. I get that. Heck, it’s why we started Go Outside seven months ago.

A familiar sight for anyone who tried to book a backcountry campsite on Friday

The issue was that, once you finally made it through the queue, picked your dates and campsites — and had that lovely, hopeful feeling of exploring stunning new vistas this summer — the Parks Canada website played trick after trick on you. It continually reset pages, kicked users out of the system and sent them to an error page.

Canadians tried for hours and hours for the privilege of being able to spend a summer day carrying 25+ pounds on their backs and then sleeping on a small tent pad in a national park.

This isn’t a new issue. As CBC reported last year, in January 2020 (before the pandemic), Parks introduced a “reconfigured computer system designed to handle the online rush. But internal emails reveal how the system buckled — again — under the weight of tens of thousands of users all trying to log on the moment campsites went on sale.”

The Fryatt Valley in Jasper National Park.

It’s worth stating that in the scheme of problems facing our world, an entire day spent refreshing your computer and cursing at a website while hopes for summer camping trips dwindle, is well, not that big of a deal. But, still. As Twitter user Myles wrote, “I am happy this is the biggest issue of my day after the year we have all had but @ParksCanada needs to spend the next year engaging with backcountry users to figure out the best regional approaches to their booking system. We all deserve better.”

I couldn’t agree more. This isn’t a new issue and Parks Canada needs to step up and fix it. There’s got to be a better way.

Whether it’s a lottery system for the most popular areas, staggering specific parks (i.e. Banff one day, Yoho another), slightly increasing reservation fees to pay for a website that actually works, or limiting users to one or two bookings, change is needed.

Four hours after reservations opened, Parks Canada stated that the system was “experiencing very high demand and some technical difficulties. We are actively investigating the problem and working to fix the issue.”

Backpacking North Molar Pass in summer 2019.

Thirteen hours after reservations opened, I finally secured a June booking for the Rockwall Trail. In the same amount of time it took me to secure these sites, I could have driven to the trail head, hiked the 12 kilometres into my first site, set up camp, cooked dinner, explored and settled in for the evening.

More Canadians than ever before are exploring the great outdoors. Booking their campsites via our national parks system — the very agency designed to help Canadians access, appreciate and enjoy our national treasures — shouldn’t be the most challenging part of their trips.

In other outdoor news:

  • Popular hiking and climbing trail Mount Yamnuska will be closed from May until November for upgrades and improvements. The close-to-Calgary trail has become increasingly popular in recent years and the upgrades come after the trail was briefly closed last July after a hiker died and two others were injured in separate incidents on the busy mountain.

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